The other day, Saturday, I’m driving down the unpaved road which leads from from my home at the top of the down to Westminster West Road. I’m with Traca Savadago, my "pan pal" and
all-around buddy. She’s a friend in the
meet and instantly feel you’ve known each other a long time
category, though we’ve actually only known each other since 2006. Traca lives in from Seattle, where I’ve visited her the past two springs; now she’s
come to visit in me here in Vermont. Today we’re off to the Brattleboro farmer’s market. The market takes place every Saturday, May through October; its atmosphere is like a festival or a fair, as perhaps you’d expect after our long, long winters.
As we travel down the shady curving canopied tunnel, so green this time of year, we start talking about carbon footprints and "relentless incrementalism." The latter is one of my favorite concepts, one I return to in thought over and over: that small steps, taken incrementally, make a difference in aggregate and over time, individually and collectively. These days, living as far out in the country as I do, I am religious in trying to limit driving. Traca talks about wishing she’d
kept her Metro instead of upgrading, as she saw it at the time, to an
Accord and "driving around with the trunk full all the time because I
now have a trunk." I say, in passing, "Well, of course given how much air travel I’ve done between now and when The Cornbread Gospels came out, I could not drive the whole rest of the year and I’d still have a carbon footprint the size of a yeti."
And then I pause, having quickly gone somewhere else in thought. I tell her the following story, because. since I trust narrative, I also trust digression, and my friends, fortunately, accept this:
"Ned and I used to play cutthroat Scrabble
religiously. We actually kept a running tally in the Official Scrabble
Dictionary — we tracked the scores of individual games, our lifetime
wins and losses (at the time he died he came out exactly equal), the
bingos we had in individual games… Once I won on the very last turn
with a bingo, the word towhee,
which is a kind of bird. For weeks afterwards, out of nowhere, Ned
would suddenly turn to me with a look of disgust and say ‘Towhee!’ and shake his head…
"Well, once I played the word ‘yeti.’ He challenged it, and of
course he lost, because it’s a real word. So he forfeits a
turn, and he’s bummed, or mock-bummed. And then, either in the same game or the one following, I had
that same combination of letters, so I once more put down Y-E-T-I. And
Ned looked at me mournfully and said, ‘Yeti again.’ "
Traca and I traveled conversationally as we
drove the West-West Road through Putney, down 91 and into
and to the Farmer’s Market. This would be my first visit this year. I always forget how much I love the experience of this particular farmer’s market. It’s in a tree-covered, park-like area, not a parking lot, and
as Traca pointed out, it’s both inviting and inclusive. "There are actually places to
sit," she says, waving one hand.
"Look, if you buy something to eat there are tables, it’s not just, fine, you sit on the curb. And it’s so kid-friendly…That sandbox? You would never
see that in Seattle." Traca always, and I mean always, has her camera at hand.
She started with the sandbox (left, above), and soon she was finding, and taking, pictures everywhere. Two little girls sitting together on a tree trunk, giggling, wrapped in a a shared sweatshirt. Flats of basil plants, arugula, snapdragons. Farmers, customers, musicians, close-ups of plates of food and bags of homemade granola.
I’d skipped breakfast and Traca had only had a couple of blueberry corn muffins leftover from breakfast yesterday, so we started out by sharing a corn-and-black bean tamale. (As at any market, if you shop while hungry you wind up buying twice as much food). As we sat, picking apart the tamale (a little underdone, but what a wonderful smoky sauce), I caught sight of Andy
Reichsman, who sometimes does camera work with my filmmaker boyfriend, David. Andy’s also the brother of my friend Judith Reichsman, who teaches Interplay,
an improvisation, movement, and storytelling melange I go to most
introduced Traca to Andy, and then we meandered a bit, separately.
(Pictured left, dinner at our home about a year ago. Left to right;
Andy, his wife, film-editor Kate Purdie on his lap, Kamoji, an old
friend of David’s, Lisa Merton, a Vermont-based filmmaker, David, with the silver beard, me in the green sweater with Cattywhompus on my lap, and Alan Dater, Lisa’s husband. Alan, Lisa, Kamoji, and David have a long and lovely two-degrees-of-separation relationship, involving Taking Root, Alan and Lisa’s most recent film, about Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan Nobel-prize-winning environmentalist, and David’s 1973 film, White Man’s Country).
But back to the Brattleboro Farmer’s Market. Though
I had intended to purchase vegetables (David was coming in later that night,
from L.A., I wanted glorious ingredients on hand), I wound up spending most of my cash, and a little of Traca’s besides, on starts for the garden
instead. The tomato varieties alone were intoxicating in their names:
Mr. Stripey, Brandywine, Rubygold, Aunt Ruby, Boxcar Willie
Marzano. But I got peppers, too: cayenne, jalapeÃ±o, red bell, Thai. And lots of lettuce, five different varieties. And cauliflower, broccoli, and
eggplant seedlings (two varieties) as well. Growing lettuces and cabbage family members is a revelation to me, because in Arkansas it was always
way too hot; just seeing the small familiar leaf shapes of the tiny cauliflowers-to-be made me happy. Another summer in Vermont, where we don’t need air-conditioning! I’m here! And I was: present at the farmer’s market, anticipating this year’s garden, looking back to last year’s. Thinking about how these tiny optimistic seedlings would, presumably, become like the broccoli I kept running out to cut from August through frost last year, and the strange, extraterrestrial-looking
Brussels sprouts which got sweeter and sweeter the colder it got until there was a hard freeze
(Check the link to see just how odd a stalk of Brussels sprouts is in
its manner of growing… but I couldn’t resist this picture, taken by
David, of Wislawa, the sister of Cattywhompus, above, in last year’s
garden, in the late fall. She’s crouched beneath the leaves of one of the Brussels sprout
As much as I love living in Vermont, there is this major drawback: it is almost too cold here to
grow okra. I say ‘almost’ because know it can be done. My favorite farmstand, Walker’s, does sell okra each fall, but they sell it as "an
ornamental curiosity." And for 50 cents a pod! I’m an okra girl
from way back, and I am determined to grow it here, though you probably
have to start the seeds indoors, which I didn’t get done this year, so
I may not succeed until 2009. And it probably will never thrive as it did in my Arkansas garden, with its spectacular circus-yellow hibiscus-flowers and its pods pointing straight up, little dicks with enthusiastic erections. 50 cents a pod? A curiosity? Puh-lease! Horrifying, if not downright insulting, to me. I may have one foot in the North and one in the South, but I am a founding member of the
Southern Foodways Alliance, after all, and proud of it.
I heard someone call my name,
loudly, and looked up from these meditations and general seedling-selection samadhi to see Ami, my friend whom
I somehow haven’t seen for several months, wearing an orange velvet
jacket, her young grandson clinging to one of her ankles. Our hug is long. We have so much to say that we actually say, in words, very little.
I continue buying seedlings greedily from a couple of different
farmers (John and Tessa, the folks from Dutton’s) who are kind enough to let me leave the flats with them while
I go off in search of Traca and
more lunch. Traca has
fallen into a deep and soulful conversation with an older German artist,
whose beautiful silver hair and bangs caught the sunlight. She was
wearing what looked like a hand-knit shrug-wrap of a deep rose pink, and carrying a basket of posies, their green leaves silvery as her hair, their flowers as pink as her sweater. Traca (who took a picture of her basket, left) was getting her story: how she’d come to the U.S. many years ago as a student, married an American she’d met just a few days
after she’d arrived in New York. They were still married, 40-some years
down the line, twenty of which had been lived in Vermont… (Traca has
the gift of connection big-time; if she was in Tibet and yetis did
exist, she would have one telling her his favorite restaurant; she would be asking if he had tasted the yak butter sorbet in that little place in Lhasa; it would turn out the yeti’s brother-in-law had worked in the kitchen there.)
Traca was still grooving with her new friend, I stood in line for both
of us at the Thai foodstall I prefer (there are two at the
Brattleboro FM) while she finished up. The one I like is owned by Tuk, the chef at Cafe Lotus. Besides the food at the booth being excellent, Tuk, Pawntip and the third woman usually with them have extraordinary smiles: not just sweet and cheerful like most smiles, but radiant.
As I stood there waiting, the sunlight dappled down through the
trees. U felt the heat play on my face, sometimes shading, sometimes warming it. Ahead of me on
line were three girls in their twenties, also deep in conversation. One had long, henna’d
hair, a shiny blue-red from which the sun glinted, more
colorfully, though no less beautifully, than off that of Traca’s
silver-haired friend. Another of the three friends had a darling sleepy-eyed baby, quiet, dozing, cradled in a sling made out of a huge fringed orange-and-yellow scarf around her neck.
All around me: people, all ages, all stages. A band with two
women vocalists, two guitarists, a banjo
player, several a small self-assured little boy with
a toy guitar(Traca later took his picture). "And I’m not gonna let ’em catch me, no, not gonna let
’em catch the midnight rider…" sang the women, a cheerful and harmonic
version of the old mournful Allman Brothers song. A slim, lovely woman with
dark hair in a self-propelled wheel-chair, buying a Thai chicken skewer
and sharing it with her daughter, the child nestling her small head in the mother’s lap. The smells: herbs from the farmstands, crepes and curry and African
stews (brought by a mother and son from Mali), wood-fired pizzas, all mingling. The sounds: occasionally faint sizzles
barely audible against the waves of conversations and greetings. Neighbors
hailing each other and hugging. Music, children at play calling to each other, their parents calling to them.
life, life, life, its own sweet unfolding self.
Quiet for a moment in the midst of all this, I felt for the
wonder and strangeness of being
here. This version of life is still new to me, utterly different from what
I imagined it would be seven years earlier, when Ned was alive.
The twinge and ache of his loss, which so often comes up for me still, was there, of course. But by now it is a mild sadness, an inchoate longing, not the overwhelming grief
that was my near-constant companion for so long. These days, certainly that day at the Brattleboro Farmer’s Market, sadness resides side by side with joy. (Perhaps having my heart cracked open with his sudden death has, in fact, enlarged it, so that opposites can now both inhabit that beating muscle, clenching and unclenching, peaceably?)
And Ned was in a sense with me — not in the "he’s looking
down on you" way at all (I have never felt that) but that he was present in me, because who I am is inseparable from who he was and who I became in those 23 years with
him. That I was still amused, all those years later, at the very
thought and recall of his expression as he said "Towhee!" back when we played Scrabble. (Pictured above left: Me, Ned, and
Z-Cat — Z-Cat is also deceased, now — taken in 2000, a couple of
days before Ned’s death, on the front porch of my old home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas… another life for me. Photo, George West.)
Who are we, then? Future ghosts, enjoying the temporary and
uncertain privilege of being embodied? And how is it that on that
beautiful day, in the midst of all that presence and abundance, plants
and food and people and spring, I could feel loss and longing, yet not be
saddened by them… feel, instead, deep joy, amazement,
appreciation, wonder? Contradiction is rich, the discovery I make continually; again and yeti again. Each time, it feels new.
"Now", we’re told, is all we have. Undoubtedly true. Yet once we reach the age of
experience, memory, and forethought, our "now" is informed by "then" and the knowledge of the brevity of our
sojourn here. Curiously, this feels neither morbid nor depressing; rather, "now" becomes all the more luminous for its transience. As I said in an earlier post about transparency, more light shines in and out.
Traca joined me on the Thai line, and we eventually received two gorgeous plates of Thai food, mine vegetarian, hers non-v. We
were both very happy with the fresh, spicy, herbal, hot flavors that
make Thai cuisine absolutely sui generis. (I especially loved an ugly but hauntingly good "tofu salad", crumbly white and brown.) And there was the delectable presence
of the no-way-is-it-local coconut in some of the dishes. Though of
course it was local, in one sense, because there it was, after all, in Brattleboro, Vermont,
cooked and served by Tuk and Pawntip who had somehow — I don’t know now, but am sure the particulars are fascinating and fraught, as are the stories of all immigrants and exiles — made
their way from Thailand. To right there, right then.
As I had. As Traca had. As David was doing, at that moment, aboard a Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles, California, to Hartford, Connecticut.
As all of have traveled,
uniquely and universally, from somewhere to somewhere else.
In the town I used to live in, occasionally I’d see a self-righteous bumper-sticker that infuriated me with its ignorant mean-spiritedness. "All of us here are NOT tourists!" it proclaimed. Well, duh: talk about patently obvious. And so hostile! And ignorant of Economics 101: how come Eureka Springs remained relatively pristine, without a chicken processing-plant and a 24-hour-a-day Wal-Mart SuperCenter like nearby Berryville? Because the appreciation of visitors, i.e., tourism, protected it!
But most of all, that bumper-sticker was dumb. We’re human beings. We’re here so briefly. We’re all tourists, or at best, travelers.
"Passing through; passing through;
sometimes happy, sometimes blue,
glad that I ran into you.
Tell the people
that you saw me
Bill, who is now passing through Paris. If Traca is a relatively new friend, Bill is… well, we’ve been pals since 1975. Friends of the finish-each-others-sentences variety. Friends of the sometimes-we-don’t-even-need-to-finish, or for-that-matter-even-begin some of those sentences variety. ( Here’s a picture of him, taken by David in my kitchen here in Vermont, a few months back.
Note the typical quizzical, smart-ass, slightly skeptical expression.) God, I love my friends. Go check out Bill’s blog, Your Man in Paris.
David would arrive safe and sound around 1:00 am that night
(technically, the morning of the next day, but it’s not morning to me
until I get up). Traca was asleep by then and I dozing, but I woke up enough to
greet him and be delighted that he was back, fix him a plate of homemade
split-pea dahl and some Fair Trade Thai rice of a wild purple
color. A dab of yogurt and one of some homemade chutney. And we
caught up, and for once left the dishes (a radical break in my household protocol) and then went upstairs to bed… I had put clean sheets on, the crisp cotton summer linens, as opposed to the warmly napped winter flannels…
That was Saturday. Sunday David gardened, I cooked and did battle with a huge stand of rhubarb, Traca helped
with the rhubarb, cooking, compost-taking-out, plus ran out to Saxtons River for sugar and Pam spray. At twilight, the three of us
went to a potluck to which I brought the rhubarb crisp and buttermilk
ice cream Traca and I had prepared. The buttermilk ice cream, in
particular, was very well-received.
"Do you know most of these people?" Traca asked me, gesturing around the gathering. "Nope," I told her, thinking about how in Eureka Springs I would have known every single one of them, and their kids, and their dogs, and their dogs’ astrological signs. The fact that you only pass from youth to maturity once, if you’re lucky in one place with one person (as I did with Ned, in Eureka Springs) is certainly bittersweet. I am in one way less rooted here. In another, I’m liberated from the corral of expectations, of those who, because they think they know about you, may not in fact know you. (Picture, left, taken by David during the cornbread tour at an event when I was visiting my former home town last December, held at the Old Stone Church , aka the Gavioli Chapel… me with two old friends in Eureka who DO know me; Barbara Kellogg, aka Farletta Farquardt, and darling Debbie Dye, who may know me too well. You can see we’re not having much fun.)
Today, Monday, they left for the
Hartford, Traca to return to Seattle, David to work in Alexandria,
Virginia where he’ll be filming until Wednesday, when he’ll return to Vermont. (More
yeti-sized carbon footprints. But hey, even in An Inconvenient Truth, what
was Al Gore doing but going airport to airport with his rollaway bag,
poignant, spreading the message? You do the best you can, and something
is always better than nothing.)
I sent them off with a breakfast of eggs scrambled with fiddleheads
(a basket full of fiddleheads, left, from the farmer’s market, snapped by Traca on Saturday), and Parmesan cheese. Since I was
inexplicably out of fresh bread, I
made a sort of improvised hashed-brown/stove-top stuffing to go with
it: sauteed onion, a fresh tomato this early from Micheal Collin‘s
Vermont garden (how that guy extends the season is beyond me) with some
chunks of some excellent wholegrain-y artisanal bread I had toasted dry
and stashed in the freezer).
After they’d left for
the airport, I ate the leftovers fiddlehead scrambled and hashed brown-style bread, sitting out on the screen porch (the
screen porch is pictured left, but with Very Lemony Cornmeal Poundcake
from The Cornbread Gospels,
and hot tea, and cosmos from the garden last summer, and blue
lustreware inherited from my old, long-deceased Arkansas friend, Virginia Carey,
may she rest in peace and feistiness, as she lived. Again, presence and absence, side by side, inextricable. David took this picture). The view from the screen porch spreads out, on a clear day like today, twenty-some miles, clear into New Hampshire. And on days like this morning, so extremely fresh and clear, the air fragranced with the lilac in full bloom, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s line echoes in my head: "Inebriate of air am I."
Then, after breakfast, I went out into the bright, now much quieter, morning. I had intended to go back
to sleep but the garden and the seedlings
were calling. I put eighteen of the assorted lettuce starts I had
bought at the farmer’s market into the ground, plus seven eggplants. Albert had tilled that garden earlier in the week;
David, the day before, had laid out rows and made furrows. And of
course Aunt Dot (as taken by David, last fall) — still in the hospital, but, after a scary downturn, was finally on a liquid diet and
tentatively scheduled to return home later this week — she had had the foresight to
buy the farm in the first place.
And I thought then, and think now, that we are always and never alone as we make our way on this spinning green earth.